Sound in body and mind, a capable athlete, who even when a superior officer vied with his soldiers in leaping, running, and lifting, a vigorous and skilled rider and fencer, a bold leader of volunteer bands, the youth had become Imperator and triumphator at an age which excluded him from every magistracy and from the senate, and had acquired the first place next to Sulla in public opinion; nay, had obtained from the indulgent regent himself--half in recognition, half in irony-- the surname of the Great. Unhappily, his mental endowments by no means corresponded with these unprecedented successes. He was neither a bad nor an incapable man, but a man thoroughly ordinary, created by nature to be a good sergeant, called by circumstances to be a general and a statesman. An intelligent, brave and experienced, thoroughly excellent soldier, he was still, even in his military capacity, without trace of any higher gifts. It was characteristic of him as a general, as well as in other respects, to set to work with a caution bordering on timidity, and, if possible, to give the decisive blow only when he had established an immense superiority over his opponent. His culture was the average culture of the time; although entirely a soldier, he did not neglect, when he went to Rhodes, dutifully to admire, and to make presents to, the rhetoricians there. His integrity was that of a rich man who manages with discretion his considerable property inherited and acquired. He did not disdain to make money in the usual senatorial way, but he was too cold and too rich to incur special risks, or draw down on himself conspicuous disgrace, on that account. The vice so much in vogue among his contemporaries, rather than any virtue of his own, procured for him the reputation--comparatively, no doubt, well warranted--of integrity and disinterestedness. His "honest countenance" became almost proverbial, and even after his death he was esteemed as a worthy and moral man; he was in fact a good neighbour, who did not join in the revolting schemes by which the grandees of that age extended the bounds of their domains through forced sales or measures still worse at the expense of their humbler neighbours, and in domestic life he displayed attachment to his wife and children: it redounds moreover to his credit that he was the first to depart from the barbarous custom of putting to death the captive kings and generals of the enemy, after they had been exhibited in triumph. But this did not prevent him from separating from his beloved wife at the command of his lord and master Sulla, because she belonged to an outlawed family, nor from ordering with great composure that men who had stood by him and helped him in times of difficulty should be executed before his eyes at the nod of the same master:(9) he was not cruel, thoughhe was reproached with being so, but--what perhaps was worse-- he was cold and, in good as in evil, unimpassioned. In the tumult of battle he faced the enemy fearlessly; in civil life he was a shy man, whose cheek flushed on the slightest occasion; he spoke in public not without embarrassment, and generally was angular, stiff, and awkward in intercourse. With all his haughty obstinacy he was-- as indeed persons ordinarily are, who make a display of their independence--a pliant tool in the hands of men who knew how to manage him, especially of his freedmen and clients, by whom he had no fear of being controlled. For nothing was he less qualified than for a statesman. Uncertain as to his aims, unskilful in the choice of his means, alike in little and great matters shortsighted and helpless, he was wont to conceal his irresolution and indecision under a solemn silence, and, when he thought to play a subtle game, simply to deceive himself with the belief that he was deceiving others. By his military position and his territorial connections he acquired almost without any action of his own a considerable party personally devoted to him, with which the greatest things might have been accomplished; but Pompeius was in every respect incapable of leading and keeping together a party, and, if it still kept together, it did so--in like manner without his action--through the sheer force of circumstances. In this, as in other things, he reminds us of Marius; but Marius, with his nature of boorish roughness and sensuous passion, was still less intolerable than this most tiresome and most starched of all artificial great men. His political position was utterly perverse. He was a Sullan officer and under obligation to stand up for the restored constitution, and yet again in opposition to Sulla personally as well as to the whole senatorial government. The gens of the Pompeii, which had only been named for some sixty years in the consular lists, had by no means acquired full standing in the eyes of the aristocracy; even the father of this Pompeius had occupied a very invidious equivocal position towards the senate,(10) and he himself had once been in the ranks of the Cinnans(11)--recollections which were suppressed perhaps, but not forgotten. The prominent position which Pompeius acquired for himself under Sulla set him at inward variance with the aristocracy, quite as much as it brought him into outward connection with it. Weak-headed as he was, Pompeius was seized with giddiness on the height of glory which he had climbed with such dangerous rapidity and ease. Just as if he would himself ridicule his dry prosaic nature by the parallel with the most poetical of all heroic figures, he began to compare himself with Alexander the Great, and to account himself a man of unique standing, whom it did not beseem to be merely one of the five hundred senators of Rome. In reality, no one was more fitted to take his place as a member of an aristocratic government than Pompeius. His dignified outward appearance, his solemn formality, his personal bravery, his decorous private life, his want of all initiative might have gained for him, had he been born two hundred years earlier, an honourable place by the side of Quintus Maximus and Publius Decius: this mediocrity, so characteristic of the genuine Optimate and the genuine Roman, contributed not a little to the elective affinity which subsisted at all times between Pompeius and the mass of the burgesses and the senate.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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